In this TGC17 breakout session, Kevin DeYoung discusses the significance of accurate Bible interpretation, addressing the issue of pervasive interpretive pluralism within Christianity. DeYoung emphasizes the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture as well as the importance of interpreting Scripture alongside the creeds, confessions, and traditions of the church.
DeYoung also highlights the need for understanding church history to combat pervasive interpretive pluralism. He encourages Christians to study and become convinced in their own minds of Scripture. Ultimately, DeYoung wants to equip people with confidence in God’s Word as a result of accurate Bible interpretation.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Kevin DeYoung: Here’s our topic for this breakout session. If the Bible is so clear, why are there so many different interpretations? It is a question related to the clarity of Scripture. The older language is the perspicuity of Scripture, which is an odd word to refer to the clarity of scripture says no one has clear anymore what perspicuity means, but it’s a good term. If the Bible is clear, we believe that as Protestants, it was one of the the foundational issues around scripture in the Reformation, they did not disagree whether the Bible was authoritative or whether it was true, but they often disagreed Protestants and Catholics on to what degree it could be considered clear, understandable, readable, if the Bible is clear, why are there so many different interpretations? The problem in that question starts with an undeniable fact. There are in fact, many different interpretations, different theologies, different beliefs. And many of those theologies, beliefs, interpretations, claimed to be rooted in the Bible. There are many churches in each of our communities, which claim to have beliefs that are very different from ours. And they say they’re rooted in the Scriptures we could talk about even in a gathering with very like minded folks like we have here at the gospel Coalition for these three days, we could easily start talking about our different interpretations. In his book, the Bible made impossible Christian Smith coined this phrase. He’s very good at coining phrases I I’m going to throughout this talk, be critical of the book, but this phrase is helpful. He calls it pervasive interpretive, pluralism, P IP, pervasive interpretive pluralism, that throughout the Bible, there are pervasively a plurality of interpretations. You can think about these sometimes with historical reference, people who supported slavery, people who thought that the Bible suggested the Earth was flat it is said or who thought the earth was the center of the solar system. They had wrong interpretations that they not. I was reading not too long ago, Anthony ficil 10s commentary on First Corinthians and I forget how many dozens of explanations he said there were on that passage and chapter 15, on baptisms for the dead. Does anybody really know what that means? In his book, Christian Smith gives 17 different readings of John for Jesus meeting with a woman at the well. So which one is correct? What are we to do if we have all of these interpretations? Surely, it was not a coincidence, that right around the time that Christian Smith wrote this book, he was also moving from evangelicalism to Catholicism. And then many of you will have some of those multiple view books, I have several of them there are more than 30 available, and I have probably more than a dozen of them. You know, four views on tithing or three views on the Sabbath, two views on women in ministry, three views on baptism, four views on the end times and as helpful as those books can be to present in one place, the pros and cons and a response for different ideas and theologies. Yet the net effect sometimes I fear is that we present to the world and to each other, that Christian theology is just a great grab bag, just a smorgasbord, and nobody really agrees on anything. And we’re all just trying to figure it out. Your four views my three views, and we just sort of pick and choose. This may be for many folks, one of the biggest defeaters to a Christian worldview. You try hard to explain your beliefs. And rather than people engaging with you on the reasonability, or the scriptural fidelity of your beliefs, they can just quickly throw a rhetorical stiff arm and say, well, that’s just your interpretation. Or maybe they say, well, but what about all the denominations that we have? You can look at the latest book on denominations in the United States and find that even among those have some sizable number they count more than 200. I counted in the last edition 27 Baptist ones. And I didn’t count the Presbyterians because I didn’t want to feel bad. So I just counted the Baptist ones in It happens in interpersonal conversation. I remember many years ago when I was on a panel for this thing called the Emergent Church, some of you remember that the Emergent Church and afterwards someone who was very upset with what I had said on the panel, got very animated with me. And I started to get a little animated as well, because our conversation was going absolutely nowhere. And I would try to give a verse of the Bible, and then he would say, well, that’s your interpretation. And then I would say, well, but But Paul reasoned with the Jews or reasoned with the people in the Hall of Taran s, and he believed that there was a correct interpretation. And that’s why he used reason and brought in the scriptures that he didn’t say, well, that’s just your interpretation, then I would say something else and say, well, that’s just your interpretation about how they interpreted their interpretation, you can see it was not going anywhere. And his wife had one of those wifely looks like, Please be quiet. But we have that conversation. I’ve had that before trying to, you know, do my my pastoral duty and have a good, you know, evangelistic conversation with someone and you don’t get to the level of actual disagreement and intellectual engagement, but it just stops at well, you have your interpretation, and I have mine. So how do we respond to this charge of pervasive interpretive pluralism? Whether it comes from non believing friends or friends we may have in the Catholic Church, or others or even our own sense of question and quandary? What do we do? How do we understand that the Bible is clear, and there are so many different interpretations? Well, it is a massive question. And I won’t pretend in the next 45 minutes to have you leave here thinking that problem was solved once and for all. But let me suggest to you 10 possible responses to the charge of pervasive interpretive pluralism 10 related overlapping ways we might answer the question, if the Bible is so clear, why are there so many different interpretations? Number one, first response, we need a proper understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. the sufficiency of Scripture, here’s what the Westminster Confession says, the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man, salvation, faith, and life is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture. There’s a definition of the sufficiency of Scripture. Now you notice, it says all things necessary for His glory, our salvation, faith, and life. The Bible does not purport to tell us everything we want to know about everything. It does not give us explicit instructions. For many of life’s dilemmas, it will not tell you how to change the oil in your car. It will not tell you how to fix your vehicle. I wish it did, because I know absolutely nothing. And when I go in, and I feel so dumb enough to get my oil change, they say, well, could you pop the hood? One, let’s see if you can pop the hood. I’m low on blinker fluid. That’s all I know. That’s why I came in here. The Bible doesn’t tell us everything we want to know about everything. Sometimes. The disagreements in interpretations actually concern matters that the Bible did not mean to address and we have differences that are not really differences of interpretation, but perhaps differences in application or even in Prudential matters that we’re trying to read back into the Bible.
So for example, does the Bible mean to give you the maker’s diet? Does the Bible mean to tell you what foods will make you healthy or not? Perhaps there’s some wisdom to be gained and something with some of the foods but that’s not the intent of the Bible. Will the Bible tell you what should or should not be in the federal budget, you may bring to bear certain principles as a Christian and things we ought to care about. But the Bible is not going to settle that for you. The Bible is not a guide to alternative medicine, the Bible doesn’t tell you how to fix your car, your computer. So there’s all sorts of things, and we should not we should have the humility to say with a number of these areas. Look, I’m a Christian. I want to apply the Bible I want to think biblical principles, but this is going to be a matter of Prudential wisdom, and the Bible simply isn’t going to give the final answer not because the Bible is incomplete or insufficient, but because it does not mean to give the final answer on this particular question. The Bible has implications for lots of things principles that can be Slide In all of life, but we shouldn’t think that everything we possibly want to take a stand on will be sat down expressly in Scripture, I know of denominations that will spend all sorts of time and that this is not a made up example, on whether to approve papers and study reports that say whether we should divest from this company because of their practices or whether the, the rate of taxation should be at such a rate or at this or whether minimum wage should be $7 or $8, or $9. Or even one time there was in a denomination I was a part of, there was a paper that in a measure that was to be against purchasing and owning firearms that have a certain number of rounds cap capacity in them. I don’t even know anything about guns either. So you tell me but magazines, I think of those as things you read, but you know what I mean? I just thought, we as Chris, we’re gonna have different opinions. Why are we sitting here pretending that the Bible settles this matter? So we need to have a proper understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. Second response, we need to have a proper understanding of the clarity of Scripture, again, let me read from the Westminster Confession. All things in Scripture, are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all. Yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of scripture or other that not only the learned, but the unlearn it, in a do use of the ordinary means may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. There’s a lot packed in there. But that’s very helpful when we say we believe as Protestants in the perspicuity, or the clarity of Scripture, we do not mean that anyone reading the Bible for the first time will make good sense of whatever verse they happen to fall upon. You notice that Westminster Confession said, All things in Scripture are not alike plain, there are some plain parts and there are some confusing parts. Yet those things which are to be known, are so clearly propounded in one place or another, that by the use of ordinary means we may attain to a sufficient understanding. So the confession is giving a very nuanced doctrine of clarity, not everything is clear. But the most important things are clear here or there. And when things aren’t clear, we compare Scripture against scripture, but it’s not immediately obvious. You have to use ordinary means you have to study you have to think you have to read. So we need to have a proper understanding of the clarity of Scripture. Most of you know especially if you’re a pastor, you love this verse, it gives you great hope. Second, Peter 316. Peter says, there are some things in Paul’s letters that are hard to understand, is a yes, that’s true. But then he goes on to say which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction as they do the other scriptures. Think about that. That is a really important verse for the clarity of Scripture. On the one hand, Peter says, there are some things in Paul’s letters, let’s be honest, they’re difficult. They’re hard to understand. They’re not immediately obvious. But then Peter doesn’t go from there to say, so we just throw up our hands and say, Well, we have our interpretations, he dares to say, which the unstable and the ignorant have twisted to their own destruction. So clearly, Peter thinks, even these hard passages of Paul have incorrect interpretations. They’re hard, and some people have twisted them to their own destruction. In other words, yeah, we admit that some of them are difficult, but we also recognize that some people have some wrong interpretations about them. So the the admittance, of hermeneutical difficulty does not have to lead us into complete and utter epistemological defeat. You can humbly approach the text to say this is this is difficult, and I’m weighing some different issues without leading you to a place where you say we can’t really know anything about what we know demonstrates that Peter knew there was a right and wrong interpretation of Paul even when it was difficult to understand. So we need a proper understanding of the sufficiency of the clarity. Here’s the third point. We need a proper understanding of sola scriptura. We do not interpret Scripture apart from creeds, confessions, and the traditions of the church. It is not so low scripture meaning scripture and we never open another book. Some of you maybe come from churches, or perhaps you even think this yourself. And you might say there is no creed, but the Bible, sounds nice, sounds spiritual. And it actually sounds like a creed. We believe in the Bible and our creed, no creed, but the Bible. Now we are willing humbly to climb on the shoulders of giants, and to learn from what those who have gone before have taught and have understood, we ought to put the burden of proof on those who would overturn the historic consensus of the church, whether it’s related to sexuality or to the deity of Christ. We aren’t assigning ourselves to utter interpretive chaos. We aren’t claiming to start all over, we are willing to learn and rely on others. This is always the fatal flaw in restorationist, movements in church history. Those movements who say, You know what, I’m just just, I’m just getting back to the Bible, just me in the Bible, nothing else. I’m just zipping back to the first century, like nothing has happened for 2000 years, like I’m not at all influenced by my own culture, like I have nothing to learn from Athanasius or Augustine, or Luther, or Calvin, or any of the Christians that have gone before, as if the Holy Spirit has not been at work in the church, and I’m just going back me in the Bible. Even if that word desirable, it is not possible. Sola Scriptura does not mean there is no authority. Other than the Bible. We acknowledge the authority of parents of government, we submit ourselves to the authority of elders. In some traditions, you may support you know, submit yourself to the authority of presbytery or an assembly. What we confess is that Scripture is the ultimate and the final authority. So sola scriptura, does not mean we have nothing to learn from anything else, except the Bible. It means in the end, everything, all our traditions, all our historical formulations, all our creeds, and confessions, and manmade catechisms, they all must be tested against the supreme authority of the Bible. So not so low scripture, or some of you have said not new to scripture. But so law the final arbiter of what is true. Fourth, fourth response to this question of pervasive interpretive pluralism, we need a proper understanding of the history of the church. The church has been around for 2000 years. So of course, you will find examples of Christians believing wrong things. I mean, that should not be a hard endeavor, you have 2000 years of material, it is not difficult. You have millions if not billions of people who have been Christians throughout the centuries, you are going to find people who believe wrong things who have said silly things, but sometimes, the press is not quite as bad as we are led to believe. Columbus, for example, was not actually the first person to think that the world was round.
The venerable bead in the seventh century taught that the world was round, as did the Bishop of Salzburg and Hildegard of Bingham and Thomas Aquinas all whom are saints in the Catholic Church. I only point that out because sometimes that’s thrown at you. Well, it wasn’t you know, all the church for years and years, they they all thought that the the Earth was flat. So how can we trust you? Well, that’s not accurate. Every educated person in Columbus Day knew the earth was round. It took Jeffrey Bertrand Russell to argue that during the first 15 centuries of the Christian era, that the nearly unanimous scholarly opinion pronounced the earth spherical, and by the 15th century, all doubt had disappeared sphere was the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy written in the 13th century. So the sundry wise men of Spain who challenged Columbus did so on account of their belief in the Earth’s size, not in its flatness. They thought Columbus had underestimated the circumference of the Earth, which he most definitely had. All of that is just an example, because some of these popular myths get handed down. Well, that was the church the church was benighted. The church was backwards, and they all oppose Columbus because they thought he was going to fall off the edge of this flat Earth because they were reading their Bibles and saw that the sun rose and the sun said, Rick, recall too, that on almost any of the scientific questions the scientific community was wrong for at least as long as the church may have been wrong, whether it’s on Where the plague came from, or spontaneous generation or geocentrism. And even where the church has been wrong, for example, on the issue of slavery in the 19th century south in particular, it wasn’t wrong for century after century and even when it was wrong, it eventually got to a point where it could find what was right. To people who use the slavery argument, which is perhaps the most common argument. Well, that’s just your entire interpretation. It didn’t Christians, for the longest time believe that the Bible supported slavery. One of the things you say in response is okay, some Christians did believe that the Bible supported chattel slavery. But you seem very clearly to know now that the Bible doesn’t. And so you seem to have arrived at an interpretation that you think we all ought to agree on. And you could even press further and say, Well, if we were reading our Bibles, you would see that the Bible teaches that stealing people man stealing both in the Old Testament, the New Testament was forbidden. So the Bible condemned the whole practice of chattel slavery as it existed in the transatlantic slave trade. So we need to have those are just two examples. We need to have a better understanding of history, and we need to not be so scared. And so you know, cowering in a corner when people throw at these things, which they probably have spent all of 30 seconds thinking about. Fifth, we must not exaggerate our differences. We must not exaggerate our differences. Certainly, some groups of professing Christians disagree on fundamentals of the Christian faith. And it seems as if we hardly agree on the same faith at all. But if you were to take Christians and churches and denominations that believe the same thing about the Bible, so we have the same foundation, about the Bible, and you take those attributes of Scripture, which you can remember with the acronym scan, Scripture is sufficient. Scripture is clear. Scripture is authoritative. Scripture is necessary. Scan. If you were to get Christians and churches and denominations who agree on that we agree the Bible is perfect. We agree that it’s God’s revelation. We agree it’s breathed out we agree it’s in Aaron’s you get those Christians, Christians, like I imagine are the ones in this room. I think that there would still be we know there would still be disagreements. But I think we would also find that we have much, much more in common than what would separate us and the things that unite us are the things that are most foundational and most fundamental. So go back to the the numbers I gave earlier, I bet out of those 27 Baptist denominations. 20 of them are some form of evangelical. And of those 20 I believe it bet they believe the same things about the Trinity, about the person of Christ and the atonement and Heaven and Hell and original sin and the resurrection and faith and repentance and probably a dozen other things that are most essential to our faith as Christians. Why do we have different denominations? Well, there’s many different reasons. It’s not always that Christians got together and they couldn’t agree on a specific interpretation. It’s not always because of schism or heresy. Sometimes it’s because of different ethnicity. And it’s not always a sign that one race or ethnicity was opposed to another. There’s different historical reasons, perhaps, you know, an African American who was an oppressed community. And so they had to, by necessity build up their own churches, or with the waves of immigrants that came from Europe, there were Dutch Reformed churches, and they were Swedish free churches, and they were German Lutheran churches, and those have maintained different denominational homes, not necessarily because they all disagree on the most fundamental matters of the faith if they’re evangelicals, but because there’s some historical continuity, and when they first came to this country, they maybe spoke the mother tongue and it took some time before they learned English. So there’s all sorts of historical reasons, different rates of Americanization, different languages, different regions of the country, different traditions worth perpetuating, perhaps a different confessional standard that they were, they were fond of all that to say, when you hear those statistics of how many hundreds or 1000s of denominations, that doesn’t mean by necessity, and none of those Christians agree on anything important, or they’ve all failed out in their different denominations. Because of pervasive interpretive pluralism. There are many historical reasons. There really is a mere Christianity, a core deposit of apostolic orthodoxy that has been taught, defended and promoted over 2000 years. Think about some of the hymns that She’s sing. And I hope that you sing new songs in your church. Because we don’t believe that the last good song to Jesus has already been written. And I hope you lean heavily into old songs. Because if you just sing the new songs that 90% of them, nobody’s going to be singing in 15 years. I was gonna break into shine Jesus shine. But I don’t mean to make fun of it. I’m just saying it was good. It served the Lord in his generation. And that’s it. When you sing those old hymns of the Father’s love begotten from the fourth century, when you sing the hymns of watts and Wesley, when you sing, Martin Luther, when you sing some of the good hymns of the 19th century and earn a few good ones there, you realize that there is this core of apostolic truth which has had been passed on. So let us not over emphasize the differences that we have across denominations or even across the centuries. Sixth response. We should recognize that pervasive, interpretive pluralism has always been a problem, and is still a problem for everyone, everywhere. This is really important that the first five points are important, and you maybe have some categories. For those theologically, this one should be a matter of common sense, but I think we don’t consider it enough. This is not just a problem for Protestant Christians, this is a problem for a group of people we can call human beings. This is an issue for anyone in any field of human inquiry. So I don’t know how you grew up and what you learned about history in your classes. And if you’re from this country, how you were taught the Civil War, War Between the States War of Northern aggression I’ve heard, okay, I know a lot of different names. Okay, so we learned civil war, I grew up in Michigan, and, you know, moving to North Carolina, so maybe I gotta change this illustration. But I never heard anyone say anything bad ever about Abraham Lincoln. Just never just in school, that was just what do you what do you know, you know that the Bible is true. And Abraham Lincoln was a good president, as a sort of, you just mean he was he was always the hero. And so I remember years ago, getting into a conversation with a thoughtful person, my church, and Abraham Lincoln was the bad guy for governmental overreach and all the things that he did, and it led to big government or you can, and so I read some books on it. And I read a whole book on rethinking Lincoln I wrote, read read books that were rethinking the Rethinking on the entities. There’s all this scholarly literature on people going back and forth, very smart people with PhDs. And whether Lincoln wasn’t good president or not, it seemed to be obvious to me for my whole life. And now I’m confused about even that. Pervasive interpretive pluralism, there were my physics teacher in high school, trying to drill into us in our AP Physics class, was very helpful. He said,
If you remember nothing else, just remember when you get out there. And whenever you hear some reports about what science says, this is a physics teacher of Sciences. He said, let me just tell you probably don’t trust it. Now, it wasn’t because he didn’t trust scientific inquiry or the scientific method. He just said, the way that science works. It’s somebody puts out a thesis or a hypothesis, and it gets in this journal, and then it gets, you know, bounced around for a number of years, and then it gets changed and tweaked, but of course, you never hear about it later. You hear about well, butters terrible. Well, margarine is terrible. Well, you need a little sugar. No, you need no sugar. You need no red meat. No, all you should eat is red meat. No, you should go out and kill the animals themselves and be totally paleo and just do it. You should eat grass, kill animals, and don’t use sugar and you’ll live forever. So even science and real scientists who studied they understand that there is pervasive interpretive pluralism? I read several books after the housing crisis in 2008. Because I like to read stuff. And there are dozens of explanations for that. I was born in Chicago, so I’ve always been a Chicago White Sox fan. Yeah, okay. I know. I know the Cubs the Cubs every every century or so. It’s good. Now, they’re very good and most of my family are Cubs fans. Like I can support it to a degree but I read you know, I’ve read books on the 1919 Black Sox. hawks scandal with Shoeless Joe Jackson and you’ve seen Field of Dreams so many? Well, there’s all sorts of theories on what he knew or didn’t know, and how could he have agreed to this and he didn’t even write and he shouldn’t be in the hall. It doesn’t matter, almost whatever you read on whatever you’re interested in, if you get deep enough into it, and you start reading why the you find pervasive interpretive pluralism, it is in every academic field, every area of human inquiry, every family, the problem is not with the Bible, it is with our finitude as human beings. And then you mix into it, that none of us just approaches things just, you know, just very calmly and coolly. And we’d like to think we’re all just, you know, just rational actors who are just very dispassionately, you know, we bring our agendas, we bring things that we want to prove, we bring our own biases, of course, I subscribe I said before to a Roman Catholic journal. It’s very thoughtful is lots of helpful things in there. But I’ve subscribed to that for 10 or 20 years now. And I’ve read all sorts of pieces where they’ll have two views from Roman Catholics one a number of years ago on immigration reform, and what we should view as Christians and how we should view immigration. And they went arguing through different papal encyclicals. And this pope said this and, and this thing with a Latin title said this and Oh, but this part of social Catholic teaching says this, And you know what it was, it was pervasive, interpretive pluralism. It’s not just a Protestant issue. I would argue that when you just go one step further, you have a Magisterium. You’ve then removed the problem from we’re arguing about texts of Scripture to then we’re fundamentally arguing about texts from the magisterium. And the quotes were this encyclical versus this encyclical. And let me just give a little warning to those of you who are like me, Presbyterians, confessional folks, you love your confessions, you love the Westminster divines. We don’t want to fall into the same trap, where all we know how to do is debate book a church order versus book a church order, or Westminster Confession versus Westminster Confession, and we’ve taken a step away. We don’t even know our Bibles anymore. So pervasive interpretive pluralism, you can say we got a Magisterium, we have a pope, we have a final authority, it will not solve the problem. And even though there may be one mother church, so to speak, in the Catholic tradition, when you begin to know and read some of the literature and have Catholic friends and family members, you realize that there is every bit as much disagreement and diversity within the church. So we must recognize that this is a human problem seven, we must distinguish between meaning and significance, meaning and significance. In the book, Christian Smith, as I mentioned, this 17 different readings he’s heard or seen on the story of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter four. And at first glance, you say, Wow, 17 We can’t agree even on this beloved story, but when you start to look at the readings, you understand that few of them are mutually exclusive. Most of them that he lists either fairly exegete the text or they fairly seek to express the significance of the text. Many of you have your password you preach to it, or almost all of us have heard sermons on that. It can be a sermon that focuses on worship, I’m looking for those who worship in spirit and truth. Sometimes it’s a sermon on outreach. Sometimes it’s a sermon on Evangelistic back and forth, sometimes a sermon on how to ask good questions. Sometimes it’s a sermon, how to let Jesus invade your life. There’s all sorts of ways that doesn’t mean that we don’t agree on what the text means or how to interpret it. But there are a number of different angles by which we can apply the significance of a text like that. So just because different sermons come up with different homiletical points, does not mean that pervasive interpretive pluralism has eviscerated an evangelical approach to the Bible. meaning and significance number eight. Christians come to different conclusions on Scripture. For several reasons. We come to different conclusions for several reasons Christians disagree on interpretations sometimes because we have not looked hard enough at an issue or a text. Sometimes we disagree because we are too bound by our own tradition, too eager to please our friends, either our living friends or our dead friends. Sometimes Christians disagree because the effects of sin, the noetic effects of the fall affect our interpretive abilities. And sometimes Christians disagree this is going to sound revolutionary. Because one person One is right and one person is wrong. Sometimes that is the case. Hopefully we are all humble enough to remain open to correction and learning new things. But hopefully we are also humble and forthright enough to say yes, I do believe that Mormons have misinterpreted this passage. I do believe my Arminian friends have misinterpreted this passage. I have many wonderful Baptist friends who believe I have misinterpreted a few passages. And, strangely enough, they’ve also misinterpreted those same passages. Now, I have more respect for the Baptists on the issue of baptism. Who thinks you know what, Kevin, I like your stuff. I learned some things appreciate you. But I’m a Baptist, and you’re wrong. You’re just you’re just wrong. You baptize you baptize babies, and you’re wrong. And we can we can talk about it. We can do texts. I can I can deal with that. That’s much more palatable than Well, we have our interpretations, and no one can really know. And let’s just say no, we agree to disagree as friends. But intellectually, we understand that there are some mutually irreconcilable ideas. And that’s okay. And so we make a case, it’s that famous line from GK Chesterton, that the whole purpose of an open mind is to close on something solid. It’s not to just remain open with every time you bend over a new idea falls out in the end, you just put and put them on, where’d that come from? You close, you remain open so that you close on something. The church fathers understood that there were different biblical interpretations flying around. Let’s not be naive about this. We think this is somehow a modern or postmodern problem. Go read Augustine or read the church fathers or read here and as and read all the heresies that they were battling, you know what the heretics usually did. They quoted Scripture wrongly, but they quoted Scripture. They believe the Bible was saying something. So this is not new. The church fathers understood that there were different interpretations. Here’s a Gustin writing on Christian doctrine. He says, what difficulty is it for me, when these words can be interpreted in various ways, provided only that the interpretations are true? In Bible study, all of us are trying to find and grasp the meaning of the author we are reading. And when we believe him to be revealing truth, we do not dare to think he said anything which we either know or think, to be incorrect. That sounds like Agustin could be writing today. He understood there was pervasive interpretive pluralism, even in the fourth and the fifth century. And he says in that quotation simply, yeah, there’s different interpretations. And you know what, some of them are wrong.
It was not a deal breaker for him, it did not undermine his confidence in the internal consistency or understandability of Scripture. Justin Martyr was, quote, entirely convinced that no scripture contradicts another he said, origin affirm that Scripture is the one perfect and harmonized instrument of God, from which different sounds give forth one saving voice to those who are willing to hear. In other words, the fathers believed the Bible was internally consistent, and that they had understood it correctly, while their opponents had misunderstood it. And we dare to say the same thing. This is the great challenge of our day, not only to show that what we believe is right, but to defend our very right to be right. It’s one thing to have to convince people. This is right, we don’t even get there sometimes. And let me just be a plea, especially for any of you who are our lay people, you don’t usually go to conferences like this. And I know there’s, it’s a good kind of humility in a way but it can be disconcerting. When people in the church say You know what, there’s so many smart PhDs who disagree on this thing, I can never possibly come to a conclusion on the matter. Look, if you are going to abdicate your privilege and responsibility to read the scriptures for yourself, every time PhDs disagree on something, you will know nothing. You don’t think there are really smart people out there who’ve written really footnoted works, who think Jesus never rose from the dead Jesus wasn’t the Son of God. There is no hell there is no devil there are no demons. Anything we hold as precious and inviolable as Christians. There’s some smart personnel there who disagrees with it. And so we’re just going to throw up our hands and say, Oh, so many smart people disagree. I’ll never figure it out. No, we need to study. We have the privilege, we have such an embarrassment of riches, all of the resources, I mean, just a wealth of information at your fingertips, in a bookstore in your homes, open your Bible, study your Bibles, become convinced in your own mind of these things. And then dare to say, You know what? I’m open to being corrected. But I humbly think that your interpretation here is incorrect. And here’s why. That’s how we learn. I don’t even know if people want to pursue knowledge anymore, if any of us are really interested in, in learning truth. If we’re not willing to say, Yeah, I think that’s right. Now, tell me what you think. And we’ll actually have an exchange of ideas. Here’s the ninth response. We must remember that at some point, everyone wants to affirm that scripture says something clearly, whether others disagree or not. At some point, everyone wants to say, well, Scripture is clear on that matter, whether other people disagree or not. So again, in his book, Christian Smith, who has spent a good part of the book to explode this idea of pervasive interpretive pluralism, you know, drop this bomb on evangelicals. Then he gets later to talk about Ron ciders book Rich Christians in an age of hunger, which he says, makes a quote, clear, biblical case about poverty and hunger. I’m not making any sort of comment about that book. But I’m just stating that even in a book, where he’s saying, we don’t agree on these interpretations, and we all have different interpretations on the Bible. At some point, everyone comes to something in the Bible that’s important to them, that they then say, well, that’s clear. So he says the commandments about generous giving are, quote, pervasive, clear, straightforward, obvious, and simple, in quote. Okay, well, wait a minute. What about pervasive interpretive pluralism? You just said we throw up our hands. Now you’re saying, well, well, obviously when it talks about the poor when it talks about giving, that is obvious. I remember reading years ago, Brian McLaren’s book, The secret message of Jesus. And he so often criticized moderns, as he called him for being so sure about the Bible and pinning everything down and getting everything freeze dried in our systematic theologies, and not leaving room for mystery and thinking that we have everything nailed down and put God in a box, and who really can know with all these interpretations. But then he wrote a book the secret message of Jesus and argued that his reading of the kingdom was right, because, quote, It accounts for more of the details included in the text than a bad reading. So everyone who’s interested in Jesus, and the Bible comes to some point where they sort of thrown up the dust in the air, and everything’s confusing, but then they say, well, listen, let’s let’s be straight here for a minute. We can really know what it says about the kingdom, we can really be sure what it says about justice, we really do know what it says about generosity. Everyone wants the Bible to say something. Clearly. It’s true that some things in the Bible are clear. And some things are less clear. I don’t have any problem with people arguing that, well, that’s less clear than this. What is a problem is when people don’t bother to argue their case, but instead, they push aside beliefs that they’re not interested in. And they simply say, Well, there’s a million interpretations and theories. So let’s not get worked up over this one. And then when they come to the doctrines they really care about, they say this is obviously and abundantly clear. And we need to pay attention not only to our own context, but to that most neglected community of interpreters, the communion of the saints. We talk about diversity in our day. But what about the diversity of the dead? What about the Christians who have gone before us? Or what about and I’m thinking, in particular, the debates in our day about sexuality, and it’s easy to say, Well, look, you know, we just, there’s so many good people that disagree on marriage and sexuality. When you go into history, and you have what, what is marriage? And is it between persons of the opposite sex are of the same sex that that was not an unclear issue that was not confusing still today, when you go to most parts of the world, most Christians around the world that is not unclear. So you want to talk about Western imperialism it is foisting our own secularism upon the rest of the church in the world and throughout history. And here’s a final point. And then we’ll be done a few minutes early. Because you need a break. And I need to find a restroom. So This is most important, we should have the same confidence in the Bible, that Jesus had the same confidence in the Bible that Jesus had begun to turn to at least one text before we finish Matthew 19. reading from verse three, and the Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause? He answered, have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh? What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. And he goes on to quote from Genesis, why then did Moses command wanted to give her certificate of divorce, they asked him to send her away. He said to them, because of your hardness of hearts, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so. And I say to you, Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery, you know, the context, you know, there were a plurality of opinions. And there was a School of Hillel. And there was a school of Shama and their different opinions among the Jews about what was lawful for divorce, Jesus was being asked to adjudicate an issue of different scriptural interpretation. And what did Jesus say? We have our interpretations. Know, he dared to say, not only as the Son of God, but as a good Jew, he dared to say what a faithful a correct a right interpretation would be. And do you notice this language here in verse four? Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and then verse five, and said, who said, We gotta go up to verse four? It’s a continuation with the Creator, the Creator made them male and female. And the Creator said, no, why is that significant? Because he goes to quote from Genesis, and you could go back to Genesis two, and you find that there’s no direct speech in Genesis two that a voice from heaven declared these things to Adam and Eve, but it’s simply the narration. It’s the text of scripture. Jesus can say, when he quotes from the text of Genesis, that this is what the Creator has said, This is what God has said, whether or not it’s a direct quotation from God, everything in this book is a word that God has spoken. Now, why is that significance for this issue of clarity and pervasive interpretive pluralism is significant for this reason.
The question is not really, first of all epistemological, you know, epistemology is how do we know what we know? Before it is an epistemological question, it is a theological question, that is to say, what do we believe about God? What sort of God is He? Many of you know of this poem, and perhaps you’ve, I think Don Carson has used an illustration with this poem, and I’ve mentioned it before, but that little doggerel poem called The six blind men of Hindustan, and it’s this poem that talks about this six blind men and the elephant and one of them touches the side and it says, it’s a wall and another one touches the ear and says, it’s a fan other one, grabs his trunk and says it’s a rope. And, and the, the point of this little poem is, this is what we’re all like, with religion. We’re just blind men. We’re just groping around. And we think we know what we what we have. But really, we just touch and feel a part of the elephant. And we all have our different interpretations. And we don’t really understand the truth. blind men, elephant, wall to rope, it’s a fan. Of course, there’s two fundamental problems with that little analogy, one, the whole story is told from the position of omniscience, someone who does clearly know what’s going on and what the animal is. But here’s the question I want or the problem I want to draw your attention to. Okay, that may sound all very well and good. And that may sound very humble, and you know, who am I? I’m just blind. But what if? What if the elephant speaks? What if the elephant elephant says, No, you’re blind? I’m an elephant. He said, Man, I don’t know. I think you’re like a paradox. Seriously, I’m an elephant. But to me, I feel like you’re a flamingo of an elephant. Okay, at that point. Are you humble? Are you hard of hearing? We have this idea. This is GK Chester’s gonna get his, he said we have put humility in the wrong place, humility was meant to be placed over the origin of ambition, not over the origin of knowledge. And then he says we are in danger of making a race of men who are too meager to believe in the multiplication tables. What if God has spoken? That’s why this issue of clarity and perspicuity is fundamentally a theological question. Do we have a God who wants to be understood? Who is God enough to communicate in a way so that humans can know Him, love Him, worship Him and be saved by Him? That was the issue in the Reformation. That’s why William Tyndale worked on his translation. That’s why he said before he died, that the Lord might open the king’s eyes. That’s why he said to the man who scoffed at him and his work that if God would give him strength to complete this translation, he would make the plow boy in the field to know more of God than this man of the religious elite did. Because God is a God who wants to be known. And is God enough to make himself known even to fallible fallen human beings. So it may sound very humbled as I just don’t want to put God in a box and all I have are my interpretations and I’m not smart enough to understand but is God smart enough? To be understood? That’s the question. Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we, we want all of this information to not be just an exercise in thinking interesting thoughts, but to equip us to go back to our churches, as members, as pastors as leaders, as mothers and fathers, to have confidence in your word. We want to be very humble Lord about ourselves. chastened, humility with our own, seeing through a glass dimly and yet may that humility of self never translate into a doubtfulness about your word give to these dear people confidence, in these trying days confidence in your word, that you are a good God, who wants to be heard, and can speak so that we can truly understand. We pray in Jesus name, Amen.